Willow (Salix alba) plant for Herbal Naturopathy: properties, benefits, uses, side effects

Willow (Salix alba) is a plant of the Salicaceae family. Known for its  anti-inflammatory, anti- neuralgia and antifebrile properties, it is useful against rheumatism, headache and fever. Let’s find out better.

Properties of the willow

The bark of the willow branches, 2-3 years old, contains phenolic glycosides (salicin, populin, salicylic alcohol); aldehydes; aromatic acids; flavonoids (isoquercetin); and tannins. Salicin is the most interesting active ingredient of the plant for its analgesic, antipyretic and antirheumatic properties. 

For these actions the willow is used as a natural anti- inflammatory, anti- neuralgic, antifebrile food supplement, useful in case of rheumatism; joint and muscle pain, back pain; neuralgia; excellent against headaches; fever; colds. 

As for the spirea, the phytocomplex contained in the white willow bark has a considerably less irritating action for the gastric mucosa, compared to that of acetylsalicylic acid (component of a well-known drug); moreover, the vasoprotective action of flavonoids enhances their anti-inflammatory action.

For external use, salicylic acid is used in creams and lotions, for the treatment of many dermatological diseases: acne, dandruff, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis , calluses, corns and common warts, because it has a keratolytic action, in conditions in which the stratum corneum of the epidermis produces excess keratin.

How to use

DECOCT:  1 level spoonful of willow bark, 1 cup of water 
Pour the chopped bark into cold water, turn on the heat and bring to a boil. Boil for a few minutes and turn off the heat. Cover and leave to infuse for 10 min. Filter the infusion and drink it.

30 – 40 g of mother tincture in a little water 2-3 times a day after meals 

1 or 2 dry extract tablets or capsules 2 times a day after meals

Willow contraindications

Salicin, or salicylic acid, has an anti-platelet action, so the willow must not be taken by people who perform anticoagulant therapies; it must be taken with caution by those who are allergic to salicylates and, as a precaution, it is not recommended to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Description of the plant

Tree with open crown and thin, flexible and tenacious branches, it can reach 25 m in height. It has a yellowish or gray-reddish bark.

The lanceolate-acuminate leaves, with deciduous and small stipules, petiolate and finely serrated, are hairy on both faces when young; while the adult ones have a slightly hairy or glabrous upper page, and the lower one is covered by dense down which confers a silvery color (hence the attribute alba, ie white).

The inflorescences are made up of catkins, divided into female and male. The male catkins are up to 7 cm long, have two stamens and yellow anthers; the female catkins are pedunculated and more slender than the male ones. The fruits consist of glabrous and subsessile capsules which, when fully ripe, open in two parts, releasing cottony seeds (ie seeds with a white cottony “pappus”).

The Salix genus includes about 300 species characterized by rapid growth and low longevity, characteristics that we fully find in the white willow.

The habitat of the willow

Native to Central and Southern Asia and North Africa. It grows in humid places and along waterways up to 1000 meters above sea level 


In the Celtic language the name Sal-lis means “near the water” confirming the fact that willows grow well in cool places, with well-watered soil such as the banks of lakes, rivers, or near marshy areas. The term alba (= white) probably alludes to the fact that the leaves, of a silver gray color with a light silky down on the underside, give the crown a silvery-white appearance.  

The therapeutic virtues of the willow bark have been known since ancient times. We find, in fact, this drug mentioned in the writings of Ippocrates; of Dioscorides and Pliny, in the 1st century AD to which febrifuge and analgesic properties are attributed. In the Middle Ages, pharmacological use is gradually being lost, given the high flexibility of the young branches, which are used for the manufacture of baskets and other wicker objects: the name wicker actually derives from the species Salix viminalis, whose branches are particularly suitable for this use. The Salerno Medical School(from the Norman period, up to the first half of the 13th century) attributes anaphrodisiac properties to the willow, specifying that it curbed lust to the point of preventing conception.

Unbeknownst to him, Napoleon Bonaparte‘s historical turning point in studies on the willow impressed him on June 20, 1803 , by imposing a ban on the importation of any goods coming from the English colonies and from England to the continent. With this decision, the importation from America of cinchona bark was also blocked (originally from South America, once used, given the high content of alkaloids, mainly as antipyretic) and therefore pushed the search for a valid indigenous pharmacological substitute. European. The most obvious substitute then employed was the willow.

The demand for salicylic acid in this period was so high that it exceeded the extraction capacity of the active principia from the willow, spirea and gaulteria procumbens, of the pharmaceutical industry of the time. To develop an industrial synthesis method of salicylic acid, reducing costs and solving the problems of availability of the product.

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